Into the Badlands is wrapping up it’s final season on AMC. It’s a show that hasn’t won awards for costumes or stunts. It hasn’t been lauded for diversity or depth. In fact, a great many people have never heard of it, or tuned out after the first season. And that’s a shame, because they don’t know what they’ve been missing out on.
Looking back at it, it makes sense. The first season gave us a patriarchal and abusive dystopia, where women were chattel, children were stolen from their homes, and it felt like there was no hope for our future. But from this beginning, the world opened and expanded, broadening the mind of Sunny, a man who accepted his place and role, and gave us the complexity and flaws of such a toxic kind of rule. Admittedly, the show didn’t hit its stride until season two, where a change of filming location and the addition of a seemingly buffoonish character gave us a balance.
With that balance, the show found its stride, dug deeper into a self-created mythos, and did something no other show had quite managed to do before. That is, they talked the talk and walked the walk. The show wasn’t just about the beefy white male hero, it wasn’t just about fancy fight scenes and amazing wire work, it wasn’t based on a book or comic, and it wasn’t given a budget of millions. Yet this show gave us entertainment on par with Game of Thrones for the grandiose and bold world.
The Fights Tell a Story
It’s rare for a show to get a filming unit just for fighting, but from the start, Into the Badlands knew what they wanted to do. They wanted to celebrate Hong Kong Kung Fu styles, with the fantastical elements and the wires and larger than life motions. People being punched through walls, across rooms, and more. The bigger and bolder the better.
But the fights scenes were not gratuitous fight porn, as Daniel Wu put it. They had purpose. Al Gough explained this was all intentional.
The fights are like musical numbers — they have to be showstoppers and plot movers. We would sit in the writers room and go “Why are we fighting?” And if there’s not a good character reason or story reason to fight then — if it’s to fix a plot hole, then it’s the worst reason.Al Gough, WonderCon 2019
By giving meaning to every fight they brought the art of stage combat to television in a way never seen before. In season three alone, they had over 40 separate fight sequences, which is more than most professional stunt fighters would see in a career. The fights were directed like dance performances, with the goal of telling a story.
The Story is The Characters
Even with the fighting being so important, and the clothing being so important, the crux of all good stories are the characters. In the tenth episode of season 3, the Widow is taken to an alternate universe, where her adopted daughter Tilda is someone else. While playing a different version of herself was like doing season one all over again, it was also a way to show how important the characters were to each other. The different dynamic changed everything.
The reason Tilda and the Widow are hugely popular isn’t just because they’re badass women, but because they are complex and real characters. Sonny starts as an arm of The Man™, but comes to realize how much it’s wrong and needs to be changed. The Widow’s entire raison d’être is to burn down the patriarchy.
But Ally Ioannides hadn’t realized that the fans would relate to her character so much.
It’s so incredibly humbling. I love that young girls can watch such a bad ass character on TV. I wish that I could have seen more characters like that, and I’m honoured to play her.Ally Ioannides, WonderCon 2019
On set, you would hear multiple languages from Chinese to Gaelic (apparently swearing), and all of this was done with an eye to reflecting the world in front of and behind the camera.
It’s something that we very much wanted to do. To us, the idea of diversity is that you see everybody. There are a lot of shows where it’s mostly white, and there are shows where they’re considered African American shows. What we wanted to do was it’s the world, it’s the future, we wanted to have that diversity.
And it’s something you actually have to do. If you go into any studio or television network in Hollywood and say “We want to have a diverse cast,” they’re going to be “Great! Absolutely!” Nobody’s against it philosophically. It’s when you have to go and put it into practice, and that’s where it gets hard in terms of you have to find the people.Al Gough, WonderCon 2019
Gough actively had to actively ask, in Ireland, for black and Asian extras. And once he got them on set, they would have to train the assistant directors on how to properly utilize these extras, and not fall prey to their institutionalized racism.
This care is also reflected in how the cast interacts with fans. The reflection of themselves on the screen is important. By having Asian leads, black heroes with considerable power, and all races and by celebrating women as the physical characters as well as men, they again found the balance. No one wanted to write about ‘dicks,’ they’re not fun, and there’s a reason the final Barons are two women.
It boggles the mind that Into the Badlands wasn’t recognized for their diversity, which seemed effortless but, according to Gough was anything but.
The Story Has An Ending
While the show is ending too soon, the producers have promised it will have an ending. It will be complete. There, sadly, won’t be a wrap up movie (no matter how many times we ask for a Netflix movie), but the story comes to a satisfying conclusion.